There are a whole lot of ways you can tell the story of 2020, but for us here at BGS, it will be remembered as a year of especially remarkable songwriting from women in roots music.
We lead our playlist with the one and only Dolly Parton, who assured us that life will be good again. Parton’s songwriting is presented in an enticing new book, Songteller, and her ability to articulate complicated emotions — through lyrics that speak to all walks of life — is something that Brandi Carlile picked up on as a teenager. In this video interview from the 2020 BMI Country Awards (with a cameo from Dolly at the end), Carlile explains how Parton’s perspective on equality kept Carlile from divorcing country music completely.
Parton, who turns 75 next month, shares a number of important qualities with a new generation of singer-songwriters she’s inspired. In the case of Brandi Carlile, there’s a sense of belonging that is woven throughout their work, from Parton’s “Joshua” to Carlile’s “Carried Me With You.” Like Parton, Brennen Leigh is able to capture a sense of place and make it relatable, even for a listener who’s never been there. Kyshona Armstrong offers a sense of self-worth and self-awareness in her writing, as Parton does, allowing listeners to know them better. Likewise, Maya de Vitry and Parton share a sense of wonder and joy, portraying landscapes — internal and external — that are imagined, yet vivid.
It’s striking, among such an incredible volume of musical output from their Americana and country peers this year, that these women would stand out, above and beyond the still-common glass ceilings imposed upon them for decades. Dolly blazed a trail, but these dozens of writers — and singers and pickers and composers and front women and side musicians and authors and poets — would have crashed through inevitably on their own. With songs like Adia Victoria’s “South Gotta Change,” Sunny War’s “Can I Sit With You?,” “Troubled Times” from Laurie Lewis, the Secret Sisters’ “Cabin,” it’s obvious Dolly Parton’s songwriting legacy will be inherited by multiple generations worthy of carrying it on.
Throughout 2020, the BGS editorial team embraced this wealth of excellent music from women songwriters in roots music. It has been a privilege to share these original voices with our readers, too. Here are 50 of our favorite tracks from 2020:
Photo credit: Daniel Jackson for BGS, Newport Folk Fest 2019